Whenever reggae star Protoje takes the stage, people beg him for one of the hats that he’s wearing, and for good reason—nobody else sports the particularly capacious Rasta crowns like he does. He’s certainly not the first to sport the storied headgear, which he’s quick to point out: “These are styles that I would see artists from the ’70s and ’80s in Jamaica wearing, legends like Dennis Brown,” the Kingston-based musician says.
But they’re hard to come by these days, and while lots of artists have no qualms with giving away something that they’re wearing onstage to an adoring fan, whether it be a T-shirt or a tank top, Protoje is understandably reluctant to part with his collection. “I’ll be onstage singing and people are like, ‘Please, please!,’ but they’re one of a kind, so I can’t just give them away. I gave one away one time. This girl in the crowd was just begging for one, and afterwards I gave my brown one away.”
The artist, whose newly released album A Matter of Time premiered at number one on the Billboard reggae charts, was always interested in the wide hats—he’s long been fascinated with the sounds and styles of ’80s Jamaica—but he only saw older men wearing them. One day he randomly approached an elder with one of the crowns on to ask where he had gotten it, and the man directed him to two men who handcraft the hats 50 meters away from each other on the side of the road in a little crevice of the busy streets of downtown Kingston. “[In the past] you probably had a lot more people making them,” Protoje says of his signature accessory. “It’s a dying art, so these two guys that are making them are probably two of the guys that were making them for those artists back in the day.”
Protoje consistently commissions these two men to make hats for him, and he’ll even request certain colors to match his onstage ensembles; in total, they’ve made him about 15 to 20 hats. Protoje’s favorite is a reddish-brown suede one, but he mostly wears his black leather one, as it matches with just about any look. The distinctions between the crowns can be subtle. His leather craftsman will, Protoje explain, “sometimes put nine different pieces of leather or different materials in them, like felt, or he’ll stitch it differently.”
The eye-catching chapeau certainly adds a polishing finishing touch to Protoje’s throwback rock-star aesthetic (he cites artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles as style inspirations). “I think when I get dressed the outfit isn’t complete until I have one of these,” he says.
Protoje’s new album is an attempt to move the genre forward—he bemoans the fact that people want reggae to sound as it did at Bob Marley’s peak—but he acknowledges these forbearers that have given him a foundation to experiment with: “The root of my music is always going to be from Jamaican artists in the ’70s. I have the utmost respect for that generation and what they did because otherwise I could never be doing what I’m doing now.” And in a similar manner, his signature accessory is a way to shine light on the style of this era. “It’s just carrying on in that tradition and keeping some things indigenous to Jamaica and exposing it,” he says. “There’s nobody more stylish than Jamaican artists in the ’70s and ’80s.”
And if you, like many of his fans, also want one of these hard-to-come-by hats, there might be a chance soon to get one: Protoje is trying to set up a website for his two hatmakers so he can provide them with a much larger platform through which to sell their rare creations. That’s still down the line, but Protoje is also launching a brand called Izim later this summer, which will be a collection of the classic Jamaican mesh marina in a number of surprising colors. “Everyone knows the Rasta colors—red, gold, and green—but these are different pastels,” Protoje explains. Both cases prove that the island’s traditional style is ripe for experimentation—and wider recognition. “I think it’s just good to preserve the culture,” he says.